Nova Scotia·30 Years Later

A top Cole Harbour High student still pained by memories of 1989

Corey Beals, a district chief with Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency, reflects on the 1989 brawls between white and black students at Cole Harbour District High School. He was a Grade 12 student at the time.

Corey Beals reflects on the Cole Harbour District High School racial incident that made national headlines

Corey Beals was a Grade 12 student at Cole Harbour High School in 1989. He is shown earlier this month at his home in Mineville, N.S. (Robert Short/CBC)

Corey Beals is a district chief with Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency. He grew up in North Preston, N.S., and was a Grade 12 student at Cole Harbour District High School in 1989, the year a snowball fight turned into brawls between black and white students.

The ensuing days of fights and tension made national news. The BLAC report, which was commissioned by the Nova Scotia government, would later investigate systemic racism in the school system.

Beals shared his thoughts 30 years later with the CBC's Sherri Borden Colley. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jan. 9, 1989

I didn't see the actual throwing of the snowball. I was within the midst of the incident in terms of the large crowd that congregated as a result of that. What I can tell you is there was a clear divide in terms of the lines of communities.

So you would have on one side of the crowd students from the predominant Preston areas — North, East Preston, Cherry Brook, Lake Loon. And then you'd have students on the other side who were predominantly from the Eastern Passage area.

The Preston area is historically an indigenous black community, African-Nova Scotian community. And the Eastern Passage area predominantly is a white Caucasian community. So it was a line divided by cultural background, African-Nova Scotian and white.

I would say it escalated into a racial incident. Whether or not it originated as a racial incident is to be debated. For me, it was an incident where you had a group of white students throwing snowballs within a circle of black students. And regardless of race, if any group of students were to engage in that type of activity there's going to be retaliation, whether it's white or black or any other type of cultural background. What eventually ended up happening was the incident turned into a racial incident. It went from a group of white students and black students having an issue because of a snowball incident and escalated into a community incident.

The roots of it

The communities have always historically been divided and isolated.

When you have separation or isolation of that nature, students don't have the opportunity to interact. There's little inclusion, there's little engagement outside of your own cultural comfort zone.

So for me, one of the key components or issues of this situation was because of a lack of interaction. You bring two strongly knitted communities, close-knitted communities, very strong culturally based communities together who have little knowledge of each other and because of history you're going to inevitably have issues.

And unfortunately in this situation it escalated into a major issue, not just for the communities but for the school board as well. And there were also underlying issues of the school board not addressing issues such as the lack of diversity within the school system, the lack of educators reflecting the diversity within the community.

And as a result of that there was little effort put or placed on addressing the need to deal with the differences and the distinction between the various communities, in particular the white Caucasian community in Eastern Passage and the community which is predominately black in the Preston areas.

Racism at Cole Harbour High

I wouldn't say I faced blatant racism, but systemic racism has been a significant issue during my time at Cole Harbour High School and even years afterwards. Cole Harbour High School was a highlight of my early years of education. I was extremely engaged at the school — loved everybody at the school, had no enemies, played lots of sports, very athletic, very engaged in the social life of the school and promoted the school at every possibility that I could in a positive light, even immediately after the fight.

So for me I wouldn't go so far to say that I experienced racism, but I'm not naive in thinking that it didn't exist. The systemic part of it of course existed.

You have the largest population of African-Nova Scotian students at Cole Harbour District High School at that time, significantly large proportion in relation to other schools, but yet you probably had the least amount of African-Nova Scotian educators in that school compared to other schools across the board.

I recalled you could count them on one hand. We did have an African-Nova Scotian vice-principal, I think it was Mr. Tynes and I think we had a counselor, guidance counselor, Ms. James, and I think there was only one other teacher there that was African-Nova Scotian, which would've been Mrs. Tynes, the English teacher.

That's my recollection. I know we did have a couple of physical education teachers, Mr. Brothers and Mr. Jackson, but again that's five, right off the cuff of my head. To me, when you look at a population back then was around 1,200 students ... That's systemic — systemic at its highest.

Corey Beals is shown in the 1989 yearbook for Cole Harbour District High School. That year he was runner-up for valedictorian. (Robert Short/CBC)

If you really had intentions of addressing the inequities and addressing the lack of representation and addressing the fact that there is significant cultural differences with the student population in the Preston area compared to those in the Eastern Passage area and also the Cole Harbour and surrounding communities, then you need to look at the need to have representation from those communities there so that students can relate to those who they should be aspiring to or at least looking up to. And when that's not there it's difficult for the staff to understand the students' perspective. It's difficult for them to relate to the students. And it's difficult for the students to actually find a connection between and amongst each other.

I believe that was one of the huge components of the BLAC report, was to increase the amount of representation within the school system, and not just at the teaching level — at the administration level as well as at the board level where decisions are made.

The impact of 1989 on him

In my graduating year, to have an incident of that nature, in my opinion that was not a reflection of the school itself and what the school stood for, but it turned out to be the highlight of the school. It turned out to be the highlight of that year, my graduating year. It turned out to be, even to this day when you ask people about Cole Harbour District High School, that's what people remember.

So for me it ended up becoming an extremely negative moment when I reflect back. And I get emotional thinking about it. Unfortunately, I'm unable to block that out as much as I would like to block that way because there's so many positives that I could talk about Cole Harbour District High School, so many. But it's extremely difficult to block out that one incident because it's that one incident that was the catalyst for change.

And that's not necessarily a negative thing. It is a positive thing because it forced the school board to address the discrimination, to address the racism, the systemic racism, to address the lack of focus on cultural differences in terms of the demographics of the student population in the school, and also the bigger issues, the social issues in the community.

So that was the positive that came out of this. Unfortunately, Cole Harbour has been scarred. Ever since. Thirty years later. And whenever there is an incident that takes place at that school everyone reflects back to 1989.

There's been a few incidents over the years where students got engaged in disturbances and immediately the response to Cole Harbour, now, is significant because of the incident that took place in '89. So for me that's the unfortunate memory I have of that incident. And although there are some positives that came out of it, it's a negative that I just can't get over.

(Robert Short/CBC)

Time goes on. I've moved on. I've seen some progress, but not a lot and not a lot in terms of addressing all of the issues in the BLAC report, and also not a lot in terms of increasing the diversity of the staff population there. I'm so proud and happy that my daughter is, actually, she'll be graduating this year from [Auburn Drive High School].

I'm so happy, and I knock on wood that she doesn't get caught up into an issue of that nature in her final graduating year, because I've seen the scars that I had to deal with because of that incident and I would never want my daughter to to go through that also. She's had a great three years at Auburn and I hope she ends her year on a higher note than I ended my year there.

Personally, in terms of academics and my achievements, those things are highlights of my school and educational year, as well. I did fairly well, one of the top award winners, scholarship receivers, a runner-up for the valedictorian. But even though I had those successes they were all still overshadowed by that one incident. And I just pray and hope my daughter can get through the next six months without having a repeat of what I had 30 years ago.

So we do have work to do. There's definitely a whole lot of work to do. I give credit to the school board for what they've done and I know these types of issues, when you're looking at race relations, these are difficult issues to address.

There is no one-solution-fits-all. There's no one single remedy that can resolve these types of issues. But there has to be a community effort in order to prevent a repetition from occurring. And there has to be a community effort in order to make the school system more inclusive, more welcoming and safer for all students.

Impact on North Preston

The incident started because of a snowball thrown by a group of white students into a group of black students. At that moment it had nothing to do with community.

Unfortunately, the incident turned out to be a community incident. The social component of it just expanded across boundaries and it was no longer the Cole Harbour High School incident. It became white versus black. It became predominantly North Preston versus Eastern Passage, even though there were white students from other communities. Even though there were black students from other communities, it was a North Preston-Eastern Passage issue, for the reasons I've already mentioned.

That's something that always bothered me, to this day. Our community has always been stigmatized, and in extreme negative manner, because of a number of issues, including the fact that it's been marginalized for decades, all the historical issues along the lines of racism, and the inequality in terms of lack of fair treatment, land issues, segregation, isolation, lack of services, all of those types of things.

And then to throw in an incident that had nothing to do with the community initially and turn it into a community issue, for me that just speaks volumes in terms of how society views the cultural divide in our community. You look at an incident that started out as a snowball fight between black and white students and now you automatically take that into a community issue. And to this day our community continues to be stigmatized, not just because of that but because of other issues or any issue that takes place in the community. One bad apple, unfortunately when it comes to North Preston, destroys you and the image of the entire community, and that one particular incident has tarnished our community in a negative way when it comes to the educational experience of black students.

Thirty years later it's still there. And I don't have the solution.

I am more than willing to be a part of the solution.

But we need more aggressive action and not just spoken words.

What now?

For me, when you talk about these types of incidents there has to be a positive reason why you're talking about these incidents, not just because it's a news story, not just because it's 30 years later you want to rehash the past. There has to be a positive agenda behind rehashing the story.

I don't have an issue bringing the story back up, as long as something positive comes out of that storyline. One of the worst things you can do when you're dealing with these types of racial issues is opening up wounds, especially wounds that people have been able to heal and move on from. You open them up, you better surely make sure that you have a plan or at least your intent is to try to continue to calm the tension or at least look and seek for some solutions.

How far have we come 30 years later? Are we progressing or regressing? Have we done what we expect. Have the school board? Did they do what they were expected to do? Did the community, did we do our part?